Social media activism: democracy in action or tyranny of the mob?

Sunday 3 November, 12:0013:00, ConservatoryContemporary Controversies


In recent years, social media has become a prominent forum for political activism. Some see it as an exciting new opportunity for individuals to express their opinions, share ideas and hold the powerful to account. Others see it as Twitter mobs creating change by strong-arming the public rather than changing hearts and minds.

Western society has an activist tradition that has been responsible for many libertarian and egalitarian features of society that most of us understandably appreciate. Attempts to change the law and win new rights were by no means simply about changing people’s minds. Activism was often an attempt to force compliance, through demonstrations, civil disobedience and strike action. Social-media activism typically announces itself as a continuation of the civil rights tradition of the 1960s, with the vulnerable and under-represented now able to use the ease of access to public attention to make their case. For example, the #MeToo movement was able to translate the shared experiences of sexism into real-world campaigns and action.

But some critics would observe that the attempt to persuade people is largely missing now. Activist groups who identify as victims can demand change through tactics that are deliberately designed not to change public opinion, but to do whatever it takes to make the public comply with their ideological demands. As such, this activism tends to go against many core principles of Sixties activism, such as universal etiquette norms for both genders and the centrality of pluralistic free speech. Where Sixties activism was predominantly about announcing to the public that marginalised groups had interests and views the public were not aware of, opponents of the new activism argue that it seems to be predominantly about making the beliefs and practices of the general public socially unacceptable.

This creates some important contradictions. For instance, there is an attempt to regulate, contain and suppress what is referred to as ‘hate speech’. But on closer examination, ’hate speech’ often only refers to speech that social media activists find ideologically problematic. Simultaneously, activist responses to ‘hate speech’ often contain threats and verbal abuse. But because this speech is directed towards groups the activists conceptualise as ‘powerful’, activists typically get none of the penalties associated with those who transgress their ideological orthodoxies.

When activism dispenses with any attempt to persuade wider society, does it become threatening and tyrannical? Or is it simply a reflection of the fact that, for the powerless, this is the only way any progressive change can happen at all? If activist politics on social media is more effective when threatening, rather than persuading, is it less an expression of democracy than a new kind of mob rule? When it comes to ‘hate speech’, should there be one standard for those fighting on behalf of the vulnerable, and another for those promoting injustice?